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Scramble Begins for $650 Million in ‘i3' Funding

By Michele McNeil — April 20, 2010 6 min read
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Nearly 2,500 districts, schools, and nonprofits representing every state have indicated they plan to compete for an Investing in Innovation grant, setting up a furious fight over $650 million in federal economic-stimulus money that’s designed to scale up creative solutions to education’s most vexing problems.

The large group of prospective applicants, which notified the U.S. Department of Education by April 1 that they planned to apply, foreshadows where the stiffest competition will be: for “scale-up” grants of up to $50 million, the largest slices of “i3” aid. Eighty-seven prospective applicants said they would apply for what’s likely to be just five or fewer awards.

And competition will be fierce for the smallest, $5 million “development” grants. More than 1,600 prospective applicants said they want a crack at those; up to 100 will be awarded.

The likely applicants say they are more inclined to focus their innovative proposals on standards and assessments and low-performing schools—two of the four categories, which reflect priorities of the Obama administration. There will likely be fewer applications in the other two areas: improvement of data systems and teacher and principal effectiveness. Applications must focus on at least one of the four areas.

Investing in Innovation Grants

The U.S. Department of Education received notice from 2,445 school districts representing all states indicating they may apply for the $650 million Investing in Innovation, or “i3,” grants under the federal economic-stimulus program. Applicants suggested which of the three types of grants they may apply for and which priority areas they intend to focus on.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

And, in an encouraging sign for advocates for rural education, about 1,000 prospective applicants indicated they would focus part of their proposals on the needs of rural students. Some educators had voiced concern about the difficulty rural districts could have in competing against big, urban school districts that have more staffing, grant-writing capacity, and community resources.

The i3 grant program is a companion to the larger, more widely publicized $4 billion Race to the Top competition for states. Both are meant to spur school improvement, with funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed by Congress last year. But the i3 program sets aside $650 million just for districts, groups of schools, and their nonprofit partners to pursue and scale up innovative reform strategies through three tiers of grants, with the biggest awards going to the proposals with the strongest research evidence of past success. (“Final ‘i3' Rules Keep Private Match, Evidence Hurdles,” March 17, 2010.)

Applications are due May 11, and all awards will be made by September.

Daunting Workload

With such a flood of interest—about twice what the Education Department had anticipated—federal officials will have to expand to about 500, from 250, the number of peer reviewers likely to be needed to judge the applications.

And they’re trying to figure out how big the workload will be for each judge. The highly coveted $50 million scale-up grants will likely have five-person review panels, but the two other tiers of grants may use fewer peer reviewers per panel.

“It’s about how we can get this done in the most efficient way with the highest quality,” said Shivam Shah, the director of special initiatives for the department’s office of innovation and improvement.

The Education Department is enlisting the help of its research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences, to recruit and vet potential candidates who have a deep knowledge of research practices—people who can speak fluently about “randomized trials” and “quasi-experimental designs.”

The amount of evidence needed to qualify for the three tiers of grants was a significant point of contention during the run-up to the final regulations for the i3 competition, as many observers warned that district officials mightnot have the expertise to navigate the complex requirements.

At the top end, the “scale-up” grants require strong evidence of past success, such as program evaluations that used random assignment of students, which is considered the gold standard for determining whether a program or treatment really works. At the next range, involving up to 100 awards, the “validation” grants of up to $30 million require moderate evidence, such as evaluations that use sophisticated statistical techniques to try to measure the true effects of a program. The “development” grants, at $5 million or less, require only a reasonable hypothesis to support a proposal.

Given the number of applicants and volume of paperwork for the i3 competition, the department is trying to figure out how to maintain the high standards of transparency that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has espoused.

Any day now, the department is expected to have posted the list of those who filed notices of intent to apply. The department also plans to post a list of those who formally apply, along with basic information about their applications, such as their nonprofit partners.

Once the awards are made in September, the Education Department has also committed to posting the winning applications online, along with peer reviewers’ comments—and the complete roster of judges. Still up in the air is how the department will handle the logistics of ensuring public access to the losing applications, since there could be more than 2,000.

Helping Rural Areas

With such a big field vying for a relatively small share of money, rural school districts are getting a competitive boost from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. It has pledged $1.4 million to the Arlington, Va.-based Rural School and Community Trust to provide technical assistance to help rural districts navigate the complex application process. That support is similar to what the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided for urban districts; Gates pledged at least $900,000 total to help nine districts and charter groups win i3 grants.

“The level of challenges that affect the quality of education in rural communities are as onerous as they are in urban communities; they often don’t get noticed,” said Greg Taylor, the vice president for programs for the Battle Creek, Mich.-based Kellogg Foundation, which has been a long-standing booster for rural communities. “We were intent on taking a stand.”

In addition, Kellogg may offer i3 matching funds to some rural applicants. Unless a federal waiver is granted, a 20 percent match from the private sector is required to win an i3 grant, which is proving to be a difficult task for districts in small, rural communities, especially in a difficult economy.

With the initial grant from the Kellogg Foundation, the Rural School and Community Trust will provide webinars, customized technical assistance for individual applicants, grant-writing help, and support for districts struggling to find nonprofit partners and matching private-sector funds, said Robert Mahaffey, the trust’s spokesman.

“Rural educators aren’t afraid of competing—they just need support,” he said.

Such assistance, which includes supporting projects with the appropriate amount and type of research evidence, is invaluable to rural districts hoping to compete in a grant program with complex requirements, said Superintendent Edd Diden of the Morgan County, Tenn., schools.

His 3,300-student district in the eastern part of the state is going to partner with two smaller rural districts in middle Tennessee to create a “place-based” approach to improving student performance. That involves connecting learning in the classroom to a school’s rural locale. The three districts are going to apply for a development grant.

Mr. Diden said the three districts need help finding and providing an appropriate research base for the proposal, and articulating the theory behind it—which is where the Rural School and Community Trust and the Kellogg grant come in.

“With their help,” he said, “we’ve now got a chance to win.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 2010 edition of Education Week as Scramble Begins for $650 Million in ‘i3' Funding

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